Top 10 Ways to Increase Your Value as a Technical Communicator

Here are the top 10 ways a technical communicator can establish his/her value:

10.  Embrace your personality. If you’re an introvert, be thankful. It takes solitude and lots of thinking to produce really good documentation. At the same time, if you’re one of the rare extroverts in this field, you have a leg up in getting people to value your work.

9.    Get them to bring you in early. Whether you work for a company or are an independent, research shows that the earlier in the process you get onto the project, the more successful you (and the project) will be.

8.    Recognize that your career is a marketing project. Everyone we know, from business contacts to friends to churchmembers to our old, kooky Uncle Murphy should know what we do, and how that benefits our companies.

7.    Set some goals. How are you going to get to the point whereat those you work with will treat you and your work with real respect? What would have to happen for that to occur? What certifications or degrees would help you establish your credibility more?

6.    Market yourself through your writing. You’re a writer, after all. About the best way you can show others your value is through your writing. Whether it be with notes of appreciate, emails that never have typos, or a friendly reminder telling your supervisor what all you’ve been doing to save the company money, do put yourself out there.

5.    Not everyone has to like you. The important thing is that we’re professionally appealing to a few important people. Don’t go into work saying “I hope I don’t get in trouble for anything today.” Go in saying “I’m going to create real value through my work today, and I hope I don’t have to kick anyone’s behind to make that happen.” That’s hard to do for most tech writers, but it can be the difference between success and failure.

4.    Take on real responsibility. Maybe marketers and other communicators recognize this need more than technical writers do, and that’s how we end up with VPs of Marketing, but no VPs of Technical Communication, except at specialized companies. This includes taking responsibility for your own continuing education.

3.    Refuse to be blown off. Who hasn’t been shrugged off by multiple SMEs who either tell us they’re “just too busy,” or simply ignore us? You have to be willing to, first, develop a real relationship with the SME. Then, you must have the guts to march into that SME’s office and confront him or her if s/he is keeping you from getting to where you need to be.

2.    Don’t be too thankful for your job (or clients). By that I mean don’t adopt a dependent attitude towards any one client. As a business owner, about the only thing worse than hearing an unemployed technical communicator say “I’m not sure if I really want to be working in this field or not” is hearing “Oh, would you give me a job?” Your job isn’t a gift. You earned it by virtue of your abilities.

1.    Eventually, at some point, the technical communication industry has to move away from hourly billing. Hourly billing has no relation to the actual value we provide to businesses. As a result, our earning power has been vastly reduced, and companies tend to get rid of us as soon as possible. When our industry finally gets a handle on the impact that good technical communication has on companies’ bottom lines, we’ll all be sitting pretty.

 

How to Use Writers Effectively

Purpose

The purpose of this document is to help you find writers who can do what you need them to do, and to help you use them well once you find them.

Test them up front

Maybe you’ve had a bad experience with a tech writer in the past. Or maybe you’re not sure if the person or company that wants to write your manual or other document can do the job. That’s a reasonable concern. So what do you do?

Linscomb & Williams, a top-25 money management company in Houston, was faced with that situation a few years ago. They wanted to rewrite some of their client documentation in Plain English. But they needed someone who could do that while keeping the information technically correct.

In that case, EDI got the project. But what if EDI’s tone or method of laying out information didn’t match what Linscomb & Williams were aiming for? Then they would have had the opportunity to select another vendor that fit their culture better. Taking the time to test out potential vendors up front helped Linscomb & Williams make a good decision.

Get them involved up front

A December 2006 Aberdeen Group report states that project documentation meets expectations 92% of the time, when writers are involved up front. When the writers are involved later, the success rate for the documentation falls off precipitously.

You want to involve the writers early and often in the project discussions. This will help them to gain a clear understanding of where we’re trying to head with the project, and therefore, with the documentation. It will also give them a chance to guide decisions that will impact documentation, so that the end result is high-quality, usable writing.

And maybe you’ve struggled with a writer who is so introverted that all they want to do is sit in the dark and write. This is a way to help them be a connected part of the team.

Don’t try to make the writer a subject matter expert

I run into businesspeople all the time who are looking for a writer who is well-versed in the lingo that they use in their business. I’ll admit, for the sake of prestige a writer may need to know some terminology in order to get their foot in the door.

But you probably know way more about your business, your clients, and your terminology, than any writer ever will. A good technical communicator knows more about planning documentation, structuring documents, and producing clear writing than you do (assuming that’s not your profession).

So let them do their thing. The best documentation usually comes from a pairing of motivated subject matter experts and technical communicators who are very good at drawing out the correct information, and expressing it clearly in writing.

Focus on the value of the writing, not the hourly rate

If you’re just looking at your writer as someone who produces content as a commodity, then you probably won’t get much bang for your buck. You’ll likely wind up wondering if it makes sense to pay a writer to produce content.

There are several reasons why people have this attitude issue.

One is that writers are often tasked with documenting features, not benefits. So your customers wind up seeing lots of information about your equipment. But they don’t have much insight into how your products or services can help them, uniquely. That kind of writing doesn’t produce the results you’re looking for.

Another is that people are used to asking writers to carry out solutions, rather than asking them to solve problems. As with everyone who works for you, if you can get them focused on solving problems themselves, rather than just carrying out your detailed game plan, you will get more bang for your buck.

Also, if you don’t determine what the value of the work is supposed to be ahead of time, you may not see much value in the work at the end of the project. Be sure to carefully define what it means for the documentation for the project to be “successful”.

If you’re still not sure if your writers are producing what they need to, look into using metrics to compare one writer’s work with another’s. Just keep in mind, no metric is foolproof. You need to include both quality and speed, as well as other factors that are applicable to your business (see this article from idratherbewriting for more information).

Finally, show your writer(s) that you value their work. If you are focused on seeing value in their work, they will be more inclined to do so, also.

Tell them when it’s due when you ask for their help

This is an obvious one. But we miss it all the time, don’t we? If your writer doesn’t ask when something is due when you ask for their help with it, then tell them. All kinds of chaos ensue when writers don’t know what their deadlines are.

Learn to use scribes

Were you not expecting this one? If you’re going to use writers effectively, you need to learn to use them in new ways.

A scribe, also known as a technographer or a chart writer, can make you look like a genius in meetings that you lead.

A scribe’s task is to take things off of your plate during a meeting, so that you can focus your efforts on driving the discussion. These tasks may include:

  • Recording action items and key decisions
  • Taking minutes
  • Running the computer/projector
  • Manipulating documents during the meeting

A scribe can be your right hand man or woman in a meeting. They are an almost invisible, valuable aid. Use one.

How to Write a Manual

Purpose

There are many reasons why you may need to write a manual. Maybe you:

  • Have to fulfill a regulatory requirement
  • Want to establish prestige
  • Need to help your employees do a better job
  • Are concerned about covering  your behind

To learn more about why companies write manuals, see “Why Write a Manual”.

Getting started

No matter which company you work for, or which subject matter you are dealing with, the process for putting together a good manual is fairly similar each time:

  1. Involve writers early
    According to a December 2006 study by the Aberdeen Group, project documentation is successful 92% of the time when writers are involved at the beginning of the project (email us to get a copy of the summary).. Involving the writers early gives them a chance to guide key decisions that will impact the documentation. It will also help them understand your purpose in completing the project.
  2. Analyze the audience and purpose
    This may be the most important stage. Without this stage, you risk completely missing the boat with the manual. As Stephen R. Covey says, you have to first lean your ladder against the right wall. Then you can climb up the ladder. Too many groups skip straight to stage 4 or 5. Bad idea.
  3. Prioritize resources and content
    It might be nice to write up every applicable procedure and policy. But we’ve got deadlines to meet, and limited manpower. Which subject matter experts will be providing the content? And how much time will they have to do it? Which content is really critical, and which is nice-to-have?I once observed a small doctor’s office for a day. I saw that one of the nurses was the heart of the office. If she left suddenly, the office might be paralyzed. So why not document her key functions, so that others can carry on if she doesn’t show up one day? That’s the kind of content you want in your manual.
  4. Plan the content-gathering, writing, review, and editing
    Give everyone a clear idea of what needs to be done. How many pages will the manual likely contain? How many sections? How much will you have to get done per week to meet your deadline?
  5. Do the work
    In many cases, this is the only stage of the process that companies pay attention to. But there’s a reason that it’s stage 4 of 8.
  6. Test it
    For most manuals, the process skips this stage. But if you want to have a manual that really works, you need to test it – early. Sit down with some of your employees. See if they can find key information in the manual. See if they can follow the procedures, or at least understand them, if they aren’t your end users.
  7. Publish it
    Perhaps your manual will be a big, searchable PDF. Or maybe the users would be better served by an online manual in the form of a website. Either way, gear the publishing method around how your users will actually use the information. Of course, you need to start thinking about publishing issues way before stage 6.
  8. Measure the results
    Do you want to know if the money you spent on the manual was worth it? Then you need to measure the manual’s effectiveness in some way.The best feedback comes from the end users of the manual, whether those are your employees, or people outside of your company. You need to install a mechanism for gathering feedback on the manual.
  9. Revise as needed
    Manuals are never completely done. You will always need to add something to the manual from time to time, or correct obsolete information. The first version of a manual is almost never the best one.The key is for someone at your company to have the manual as part of their responsibilities. They need to be accountable for keeping it up to date.

I hope these guidelines help you write some useful, correct, complete manuals!

Why Write a Manual?

Purpose

This article will give you insight into why people write manuals.

For information on how to write a manual, see “How to Write a Manual“.

Overview

There are many reasons why you may need to write a manual. Maybe you:

  • Have to fulfill a regulatory requirement
  • Want to establish prestige
  • Are concerned about covering  your behind
  • Need to help your employees do a better job

Regulatory requirement

Sometimes a customer, or a governmental regulator, will require you to have a manual that covers safety, operations, or some other topic that is applicable to your business or product.

Says Jody Grimes, owner of Grimes Industrial:

“In 2007, I opened a structural and industrial sheet metal fabrication shop right near downtown Houston.  We really were pushing hard in sales and marketing, only to find that time and time again companies were simply not even interested in talking with you if you didn’t have a quality system in place.  One of the first questions we were continuously being asked was, “Do you have a quality manual?”

We were in the process of making our final revisions to our quality system during our start-up. Fortunately for us, it didn’t take us long to complete it and fully implement our system into our daily operations.   Upon completion, we immediately began landing new customers, simply because our answer to that once-dreadful question became, “Yes, we do have a quality manual.  Would you like to receive an uncontrolled copy?”

Prestige

This really relates to the previous section, at least in part. Having a manual earns you respect.

And if you have a good manual, one other companies look at as a standard, then that’s even better. I have worked with clients who have drawn up their manuals based in large part on a gold standard manual produced by another company. That’s the kind of respect you want to generate in the market.

Cover your behind

This one may sound cheap. But it’s real. If one of your employees breaks a clearly communicated policy, and gets hurt, or hurts your company, you need something to fall back on. You need to be able to say “See here? You were clearly told not to do that, on page 12 of  our employee manual.” A 2011 study by the Ponemon Institute showed that it pays to head off issues ahead of time.

But spelling out policies clearly has much deeper benefits than simply covering your rear.

Help employees

What you’re actually after is helping your employees work honestly and efficiently. As Kristy Bolsinger wrote recently, “You may want to build out and document for your organization in order to increase efficiency, maintain consistency and aid in turnover or attrition.”

By documenting key processes, procedures, and policies correctly and clearly, you can help your employees become safer and more effective.

What is Technical Communication?

The problem

I’ve never been able to make what I do sound macho. I’ve never been able to make it sound cool.

If I tell you that “I capture and arrange technical content in ways that help businesses make good decisions,” does that make your head spin? If I say “I work on processes and procedures,” does that make me sound about as interesting as a rock?

People ask me what I do. What do I tell them?

 

The key

What first attracted me to technical communication was the challenge. When someone uses your document, do they get the information they need? Do they know how to complete the procedure? Do they understand how you do business? Do they get what your business can do for them?

Over the years, I’ve learned that there’s a lot more to good technical communication than just writing good documents. What good is your document if no one winds up reading it? A document can be well-written, but if it’s buried someplace where no one will see it, then you’ve wasted money. If you don’t begin with the end in mind, you will write junk.

Here’s the real question you have to answer: When clients, employees, or regulators need some specific information about your business, can they find it? If so, that’s good technical communication, whether that information is in a procedure, a brochure, or any other medium.

 

What it’s not

One of the most important things to realize is that technical communication isn’t a tech writer sitting off in a corner, writing stuff. And it’s not just fixing typos and formatting the words in a certain way. People who do that are important. But doing those things doesn’t make them a technical communicator.

A true technical communicator must be able to:

  • Understand the problem that the business is facing
  • Come up with the best ways to measure whether the documentation works
  • Extract the information they need
  • Communicate the right information to solve that problem
  • Be able to see the big picture, and decide whether or not the way they are handling the content will be effective down the line

 

Why I love it

Even if it’s hard to explain, and even if no one ever hands me a medal or retires my jersey, what I do is still amazing.

 

When I do what I do, a company’s’ clients understand what the company does for them. When I do what I do, the other CPAs suddenly get what the first CPA was talking about. When I do what I do, businesses that were spending too much time training and hunting down information can focus on growing their business.

 

That’s why we’ll keep doing this, helping more and more businesses be understood.

 

Help!

If you have any advice on making my profession sound cool, or if you need help solving a technical communication problem, let me know!

Documentation Is Insurance

The cause

Brain drain has become a bigger and bigger problem at insurance agencies in recent years. The Baby Boomer generation is retiring, and new faces, without the same level of experience, are stepping in to take their place.

The new hires are different. Often, they will not stay with a company for as long as their predecessors did. So we are left with a double whammy of retiring, senior employees, along with incoming, new employees who may not stay as long.

 

The problem

Knowledge is the life blood of any agency. Without it, there is no business. So this departure of knowledge, which is getting faster and faster, can kill an agency. The fact that more Baby Boomers are retiring, creating a need for more hiring, just makes the problem worse.

Think about the employees that work at your company. If your administrative assistant was suddenly gone, or whoever handles your commercial lines contracted a serious disease, would someone know how to do cover every key aspect of that employee’s role at your company?

 

Common remedies

There are ways to address these issues, especially at larger agencies. If you have two employees working on the same segment of commercial insurance, you will probably be okay if one of them leaves. The remaining employee can teach a replacement what to do.

If an agency is part of a well-connected network, that also makes the problem smaller. If your expert in such-and-such aspect of insurance is out, but you know just whom to call, you should be in decent shape. And if you have an office manager who has a good grasp of what everyone is doing, then all the better.

Certainly, many insurance providers offer online training to new hires, or employees who are moving into a new role in the agency. The documents and other learning items that are provided can help offset the loss of an employee.

Also, doing a good job when interviewing candidates is critical. If you ask the right questions, you can have a better idea of whether a person wants to stay with your company for a long time, or if they plan to use your company as a temporary stop.

 

When those remedies don’t work

These responses to employee turnover can be very helpful. However, there are two circumstances in which these methods aren’t enough:

  • When the agency is small, without much overlap in job duties
  • When key employees have work processes that are not covered in generic training

 

It’s great to have multiple people covering the same exact area of your business. But what if you just have one person doing commercial insurance? If someone has to fill in for them, will the replacement know the steps to take to get their work done? Will they know exactly whom to call for help?

 

And what about your key, high-ranking employees? They are responsible for tasks that are not covered in any generic insurance training. If another employee steps in after they leave, will the new employee know about those unique tasks, and how to complete them?

 

How to make sure you have the right information

There are ways to fill in these gaps, and to prevent so much information from leaving your business. Think of it as taking out an insurance policy on your company. If there is a problem (and there always is), you will be better prepared if you follow these steps:

  1. Identify your critical business information. Spend some time brainstorming your most critical processes.
    During a given week, or year, what has to happen to make your business go? What information is in the head of just one employee?
  2. Plan to capture the information. Once you know the information you need to capture, you should prepare your resources. Make sure that your key employees know that they need to devote time to developing this new “insurance policy.”
    You should also make sure that your employees aren’t afraid of being replaced. Really, you think they are extremely important. So important that you’re trying to reduce the risk that would come if they walked away.
  3. Get it written up. If someone in your company has a good sense of your needs, and how to get everything written down and distributed, have that person get the information together. Otherwise, look for outside help from someone trained to capture the information that is critical to your business.
  4. Update the documents periodically. Businesses are always changing, and you will need to update the documents on a regular basis. The intervals for reviews may vary, depending on how much your key business tasks change in a given year.

 

If you follow these steps, you will be much better prepared should you lose a key employee, or if you need to train an employee on a particular aspect of your business.

What I Learned About Technical Communication from a Nonagenarian

UJack

My great Uncle Jack is my model for how spry I want to be in my 90s. At 92, he has (mostly) good health, and a very healthy determination to keep moving along in life. He’s always trying to learn, and he tries to make it to every community and church event possible.

Uncle Jack uses his computer to keep his brain running on all cylinders. All day long, he’s typing articles, sending emails, and checking Facebook.

But …

There’s a problem. Even though he works hard to keep up with technology, Uncle Jack has a harder time learning new things than someone in my generation. A while back, Uncle Jack’s old computer broke down, and he had to buy a new one. It was a blow for him – with a new operating system, and new software, he was lost.

This isn’t a totally unique situation. In the past, the majority of computer and internet users were comparatively young. But as time goes by, more and more users are older. This block of our society represents a great opportunity for software and internet-based companies. But there are some big challenges, too. Older people may:

  • Have a harder time learning how to do new things
  • Forget what they’ve learned more quickly
  • Use older technology

The solution

Here’s what I did to help Uncle Jack:

  • I decided to put together a simple Word document (“How to Use My Computer”) for him to use when I wasn’t there to remind him how to complete tasks.
  • I only focused on how to do things. I was just trying to teach him how to complete certain tasks that he wanted to know how to complete (such as how to save to his A: drive). I wasn’t trying to make him a good computer user.
  • I wrote the manual as simply as possible. I had to include every possible screenshot, and avoid combining even simple steps.

The results

Here are some of the lessons I learned from developing Uncle Jack’s manual:

  • Good documentation will (eventually) triumph. If you’ve written the right content for the right audience, it will work for them.
    When he first began trying to use the document, Uncle Jack would click screenshots of programs, expecting the programs themselves to open. But he kept trying, and eventually learned how to use the manual. Now he praises it.
  • Content really is king. Uncle Jack didn’t care about fancy formatting – though you shouldn’t design a document in a confusing way, either. Even typos didn’t matter as much. It was much more important to have clearly written, correct steps.
  • You can’t be too simple. This may be the lowest-level audience available. I had to write with a level of detail to match.
  • Expect some follow-up. Even with the document, Uncle Jack needs periodic “tech support.” And I add on to the document from time to time. But “How to Use My Computer” has saved us both a lot of time and headaches. And that’s what all good documentation does.